Let’s talk about recycled wastewater.
Even though it’s raining as this is being written, we have a very real issue in Perth when it comes to ensuring we have a consistent water supply far into the future. As anyone who has written a climate section in any Perth-based water-related report knows – we have a “Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters”. But as our winters get a little less ‘wet’ we need to think about smarter ways to use our limited water resources.
There are really brilliant engineers out there who are thinking outside the box and developing exciting wastewater technologies – i.e. what the future needs! Which is fantastic, but is it really enough? How can we ensure that these engineering solutions are actually implemented? And how do we encourage behavioural change to match?
Innovative ideas can go awry without public support. Let’s look at how out of control things can get if you don’t have public support when implementing wastewater technology.
Take yourself back to 1987…
A posh ski resort in Killington, Vermont was catering to wealthy New Yorkers and Bostonians who were looking for a large ski-hill within a half-days drive from their city. Killington used its snowmaking as a major selling point. Their snowmaking system used more than (excuse the imperial measurements) 720,000 gallons of water per hour at full force, operating 1,500 snow guns with 88 miles of pipe, and can add one foot of snow to 80 acres in an hour. So, it’s a serious amount of water. In their promotional material Killington claimed to have “a virtually endless supply of water”.
Image source: http://www.newenglandskihistory.com/Vermont/killington.php
Can you guess where they were getting their water from?
Killington was using effluent water for snowmaking! So they were taking the clean water from the wastewater treatment process and pumping it into their snow machines. Really, they were way ahead of their time. Wastewater is created continuously as long as there are people on the mountain, so their claim of ‘virtually endless’ wasn’t completely unreasonable.
How great is Killington? Right?!
Surely people flocked to this progressive and innovative ski resort!?
When Killington first announced their plan in 1985 people were appalled. Some went as far as creating a fake organization called “Vermont Association for Sanitary Skiing” just to poke fun at the resort and generate opposition. They even created bumper stickers that said “Killington: where the affluent meet the effluent” – An admittedly catchy slogan – to generate negativity.
Killington even ended up filing a libel suit against the local Barre-Montpelier Times Argus newspaper for a cartoon that depicted skiers carrying toilet plungers with the caption ”Uh-oh, looks like the snowmaking machines are clogged again.” (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find the actual cartoon). You can check out the whole kerfuffle in this article from 1985.
”This wasn’t a cartoon,” said David Dillon, a Killington area spokesman. ”It stated as fact that at Killington you have to have snowshoes and toilet plungers to go skiing.” He said the editors ”knew damn well we don’t use sewage in our snowmaking, and they knew the state would require it to be up to drinking water standards – the board of directors decided enough was enough.”
The whole situation got pretty nasty, a local carpenter was fired from working on condominiums near the resort for displaying the bumper sticker on his car – he sued the contractor that fired him.
Governor Kunin, who was portrayed as being an opponent to development, played a very important role in the move forward from the impasse between Killington and the community. She moved to offer new legislation to combat the Water Resource’s Board from halting new sewerage treatment plants in the area. A previously unused 1970 law prohibited a new treatment plant from releasing effluent into anything but an already polluted stream. But ski resorts are usually on mountains (duh), so the rivers and streams are at high altitudes and are fed by melting snow, so the law was essentially a moratorium on any new treatment plants.
”We’ve put together the best sewage disposal system in the state -it’s drinking-water quality, but we’re caught in regulatory gridlock.” – Len Marrella
But it was the 80’s, we’ve come so far since then in terms of progressive thinking and smart consideration of resources. So surely if a ski resort tried something similar now it would be welcomed with open arms, right?
Check out this article to see what went down in Flagstaff AZ when they tried to use effluent for snow production in 2012. Environmental organisations and native religious groups (like this one) banded together to fight against the idea. Legal battles ensued that attempted to find legislative reasons to stop the use of reclaimed water for snow making.
Check out this video that delves into the wastewater debate in Flagstaff:
Interestingly, aside from the usual fecal matter debate, one of the major arguments against the use of effluent was the potential presence of pharmaceuticals!
Flagstaff reached a point where they were allowed to use effluent for snow making. On the very first day they turned the machines on and the snow came out yellow…
Now, the reason the snow was yellow was because of residual rust in the pipes that had gone unused for a significant amount of time, but you can guess what the public thought it was..
So what does snow making have to do with water resources here in Western Australia?
The lesson from these snow making stories is that public backlash that can arise when you try and implement a form of wastewater recycling into communities that don’t fully understand the processes.
Ultimately, awareness and education are key. Recycled wastewater doesn’t have to be used for potable water (though the technology is definitely there) but it does provide a great water source for a variety of fit-for-purpose uses like irrigation of POS or in flushing toilets. We need to fight against the instinctive association people make between recycled wastewater and human excrement. It is a huge hurdle, one that is frankly outdated.